What does “affordable” mean in housing?

There have been many words that all of us got accustomed to hearing as well as using during the pandemic: resilient, accessible, inclusive, sustainable, affordable.

Although these words give us the feeling of warm and happy thoughts about ourselves and others, they are not explicit in the “how” part.  

We use these words easily without how they can be accomplished. In other words, there is no way to quantify how they can accomplish the intentions of these words.

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I especially have difficulty with the last one: affordable. 

I take issue with using the word in housing discussions: affordable housing

Here are my reasons why we are not using the word, affordable correctly in our Toronto housing discussions.

Missing the audience we need

I find it peculiar that any type of housing discussion, stories, the news is missing the most important element: end-users (people who are going to live in these housing units).

The recent story about Markee Development on National news was such an example. The article described in detail how the project started: background info about the developers, financing structures of the project, and even the future plan for similar additional projects by the same developer in Toronto.

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However, the information about who the potential renters would be in those housing types was missing. Other than the development is geared for people with a $50,000-$70,000 income level, not much else is known about the potential renters who are looking for such housing types.  

In any housing project news, I get to read about how great the development is and how it is going to benefit the people in the community, but these accolades should come from the end-users, not the ones planning for the development. Without including the users in the discussion, the project cannot be truly viable.

Who better to tell us what affordable housing should be other than the people who are going to live in these housing units!

In the past, I attended similar types of housing discussions and seeing only the developers and some government officials talking about the potential housing projects without the inputs from the people who would live in those units. 

Recently, I saw a City of Toronto notice in front of a park near the Yonge and Eglinton area asking us to share our experience of the park on their website. It is to gather information about our experience and more importantly improving the future experience. 

This is a great way to start the project.

As a frequent park user, (also park complainer), I have many ideas about improving the park, and I suspect many others would feel the same.

We need to approach the housing discussion the same way. Instead of leaving the discussion to developers, investors, housing organizations (a.k.a. people who are NOT going to live in these buildings), we need to have the conversation with the people who are going to live in these housing units. 

The problem of public-private partnership

I have mixed feelings about this.  

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On one hand, the partnership is necessary to accomplish the big efforts, like a housing project, especially with affordable housing types with limited funding sources.  

On the other hand, having two opposing views and motivations – providing an affordable place for many vs. making profits from the development – are difficult to reconcile.  

Reading about the well-publicized Mirvish Village development in Toronto, and also the experience of passing by the neighbourhood on Bloor Street is s such an example.  

The project-mix of the market, affordable and deeply affordable rental units – started with great fanfare providing rental units for all different income levels at the beginning of the development.

However, the inside story into the development tells the different side. These three-tiered units are essentially going to be a one-tier system in 10 to 20 years: market rate for all.

Eventually, all affordable units in the building would become NON-AFFORDABLE which means that we would be in the same spot discussing the affordable housing units again.

Too big to close the gap

I understand the need for different levels of living in rental units. After all, we live in a democratic society with options and choices.  

However, I also know the need for the middle ground where most of us (if not all) can live and thrive. This middle ground is fading fast when it comes to housing situations.  

Recently I read an article about the Toronto rental amount falling. As of June 13th this year, Toronto’s one-bedroom apt rent decreased by 4.55%. Two-bedroom apt rent dropped by 3.57%. This percentage drop did not seem that drastic…

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Until I learned of the translation of those percentages in dollar amount: roughly $4000 to $2000 (one-bedroom unit) and $3700 to $2700 (two-bedroom unit)!

Seeing the comparison of the City of Toronto’s “affordable housing” rent amount to market-rental amount was shocking: roughly over $3000 difference in rental amounts in affordable and market-rate units.

With the tail end of the COVID ( I hope), I have a feeling the typical rental amount would increase even more…and creating a bigger gap between the average and affordable

Final Thought

It is not realistic to discuss affordable housing without talking about dollar amounts: investments, profits for developers, government funding etc.

Furthermore, not considering the discussion of future housing situation is also not sustainable. Bringing in the end-users to the housing discussion is not only necessary for our time NOW, but also for the FUTURE discussions.  

Our housing discussions have been mainly about the superficial nature: beautiful rendering images of buildings and landscapes, developers’ emphasis on their good effort on how their projects can change for the better, etc, 

Without the clearly laid out plans for the housing project, as well as sharing all the “inside” information like financing details with the public, the affordability in housing discussion would continue. 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in Life Outside of Design Studio and has been updated for accuracy and completeness.

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